TUNING BELOW THE RESONANCE - page 2

So now we want to look at approaches to “Tuning Below the Resonance” on acoustic wood-bodied 4- string Ukuleles.  But for the first approach, we’ll look back for a moment at one of the examples on the previous page.  The Mandolin got some of it’s power and a reduced dependence on the soundbox from its steel strings.  But like the Violin, there’s an additional important component in producing power from those strings.  In the case of the Violin you also had the bow.  With the Mandolin, you have a plectrum or pick.  Let’s take a look at that. Plectra have come in a variety of forms throughout history.  In 18th century Europe and before, they were made from the quills of feathers from larger birds, a Crow or Vulture.  In large part because of the old classical stringing, the style of picking was different than what we usually see today as well; it was more forceful to produce enough power for the instrument to stand out in carrying the lead melody in an ensemble.  But that style of playing will also serve the purpose of giving more clarity to a below resonance note as well by again reducing that notes dependence on the soundbox for amplification. *************************** Further down the Gulf Coast, the old province of Veracruz has what one might call a more refined culture of “Ukulele-like” instruments.  The traditional music there is called the “Son Sureño” (Southern Sound).  It is distinct from the horn-heavy Mariachi sound of the Central part of the country and the accordion driven “Norteño” sound from up on the border.  Since the “Son” has had about 300 years more time to develop than the Ukulele, the instruments have more specific ensemble functions.  And since the style came into full flower before the advent of electronics, the acoustic development wasn’t retarded as has been the case with the Ukulele.  The volume and projection of each instrument in the ensemble is as much a consideration as the range of notes and style of play. The lead instrument is called the “Requinto Jarocho” (Jarocho meaning roughly “of Veracruz”) or also the “Guitarra de Son”.  As you can see, it has four strings and uses classical material.  Construction is different; to take the tropical climate into account, bodies are hollowed out from a solid block.  Those body sizes and even tunings are not as standard as they are among Ukuleles, but often both the 3rd & 4th strings will end up “below resonance”.  However players use the old “quill form” plectrum and the power they strike their strings with again allows for clearer deep notes.  As an aside, you’ll also notice that the strings are struck close to the bridge to reduce sustain; an attribute that’s not particularly desirable in melody playing on anything but the slowest tempo. So here’s a series of videos that demonstrates the old technique.  Feathers are seldom used today; in their place are cut pieces of plastic of a thickness and flexibility chosen by the player.  Called an “Espiga” (a word that can refer to a dowel, pin, spike, tang & more depending on context) this first video shows the basic technique: Next is a video where a happy little devil (Abraham Mora) breaks down the lead from a famous traditional song called “El Buscapiés” (roughly, “looking for feet”).  You can see in detail how the technique from the first video works in practice.  This music is generally presented in the form of a “Fandango”, in this case a Fandango Sureño (Southern Fandango).  There will be a few bass instruments, a chorus of various “Jaranas” (like a big 5 or 4 course Ukulele), and a few of the lead Requinto Jarochos.  But the reference to “feet” comes because there is also a “tarima” (pallet, platform) where dancers come up, and their staccato rhythms (also in traditional patterns to accompany those traditional songs) form a large part of the ensemble as well.  One part of the short Spanish introduction says that according to the Mulattos of Veracruz, when the first notes of  El Buscapiés are struck, God himself becomes manifest in the Fandango. And finally, here is El Buscapiés in a group setting.  These performances are about the interaction between musicians and dancers as with the Creole/Cajun fais-do-do here in Louisiana.  So for the dancers to work up a sweat and for everyone to get into that “interactive groove”, songs often run around a half hour long.  The Requinto Jarocho players will, of course, play variations on the traditional melody shown in the video above.  Here, the lead is taken by a renowned luthier named Ramón Guiterrez-Hernandez, who demonstrates that his chops as a musician are as good as his building skills.  Now this is a non-traditional small combo, not the full Fandango, but it serves to show how even when he is laying back, Ramón’s little instrument still stands out, still fulfils its function as the lead. We have spent a fair amount of time on this because the examples of below resonance tuning we’re looking at on the Ukulele are all linear tunings.  A lot of folks use linear tunings for lead melody playing, and if you want to play unplugged, then this old technique is one key element in making the lead voice heard, no matter how you’re tuned. Note: Ramon does not use an espiga in this performance; he has a flat pick.  It means he has to really hit his strings hard to stay in the forefront (and as a result, he has to “drop down and take a seat” at the end of the song).  Also, the bass instrument: the “Leon” or “Guitarron Jarocho” also uses a form of espiga to help project its deep warm sound.   And as an aside, if you want to hear a full Fandango, complete with dancers and the rhythm of jawbone playing, here is a link to a performance of another classic of the Son Sureño; you probably already know a less traditional version from a recording by Ricardo Valenzuela (Richie Valens): La Bamba *************************** But what if you aren’t concerned with lead playing in a group?  A pick is still an easy way to lessen the ties to the soundbox on a below resonance note.  And though it doesn’t generate as much power as an espiga, as Ramon demonstrates above the common flat pick can also tip the balance of sound generation more toward the string.  Here is a video from a fellow named Tim Enterline picking a Linear C set-up on a Soprano Ukulele: You’ll notice when playing the single strings up the fretboard, the picked 4th string sounds nice.  It does stand out on occasion played with the other strings after that, but Tim is not presenting a polished performance here; this video was made as a quick demo to sell the instrument shown.  Nonetheless, the sound is definitely better than you might first expect.  Even the high “up the fretboard” treble notes ring out clearly compared to what you would hear with fingers on a Soprano.  Any sort of pick will help a below resonance note, even fingernails, and most people find it easier to compensate for imbalance in stringing with a pick than with fingers.  If you look back in the first video, you’ll see Peter Moon using finger-picks.  With reentrant tuning, he doesn’t have to worry about imbalanced sound from his strings, but they help him out in the group setting.  While not generating as much power as an espiga they let him take the lead in an acoustic duo with guitar (as long as the guitar plays somewhat softly). But now let’s take another step down in string volume and take a closer look at the use of nails.  Here we have Herb Ohta Sr. again on his arrangement of a song he made famous as a landmark Ukulele instrumental in the 1990s.  His recording of Stardust was actually released as one part of a group of instructional book/CD packages called the Master Series.  It’s available from Jumping Flea records, so you can get the full scoop on how to play it there. Obviously this is a polished performance, one more than worthy of being part of a “Master Series”.  Here we finally have Ohta playing the instrument he uses in a concert setting, the Soprano, but playing it unplugged.  Of course there is some very nice recording equipment here, and the sort of controlled environment where all that equipment can be focused perfectly on the instrument.  That’s not the sort of situation you’d have with a live performance, so it’s only logical you don’t see this arrangement in public. Even though this is recording may be 20 years old and filtered through YouTube, it does not sound as if it’s been mixed or altered to any significant degree.  If you listen to the tone of the notes, they are similar in most aspects to what Tim’s flat pick produces the previous video.  The volume does go down a bit; this is likely in part because of a difference in recording levels, but it’s also because nails won’t give you as strong a sound as picks.  Still, they are an improvement in volume over the pads of your fingers, and allow for both more clarity on below resonance notes and easier control of the relative balance between the single wound 4th and the plain strings in the rest of the set. Once again, however, as in his previous acoustic video, the metallic quality is often evident on those 4th string notes.  Ohta is using a silver wound 4th, and that is a characteristic of that material, especially when it’s a fresh string.  It’s hard to see what Tim has, but it may also be a silver wound.  Once those strings get a little use, get “gunked up” a bit, however, they lose some of their harsh brightness and metallic character.  They can actually blend in with plain strings a bit better.  Tim may simply have an older string. *************************** But let’s say now you still don’t have the situation you want.  You don’t like using a pick, and a good set of nails are a tricky, time consuming thing to maintain; you don’t want to go through that process on a continual basis.  You want to play with the pads of your fingers.  Let’s look at some ways to take on that situation.  Instead of looking at the most extreme of our examples (a Soprano in Linear C), let’s start by looking at the Baritone, the one with a 4th string just a half step below resonance.  Start with this video: Bear in mind that when you fret a 4th string that is only a half step low to begin with, you bring that string up to the body resonance at the first fret; from the second fret on up you are playing above resonance.  Through the use of barre chords and thumb muting on the 4th string, although this instrument is in traditional tuning, it appears the 4th string is never played without being fretted.  In other words, it is always being played at or above the resonance. This is actually typical of many styles of guitar playing, where most everything is played “up the neck”.  As such it’s a very appropriate style on a Baritone, whose design is supposed to mimic a guitar more so than a traditional Ukulele.  Here’s another video example from our good friend Dr. Bekken.   Again this is traditional tuning, but this time there are occasional open 4th string notes.  There aren’t many however; this is still an “up the neck” style of playing.  The occasional open 4th, only a half step down, won’t be problematic for most ears.  It is the sort of “folk strumming” 1st position chords with a lot of open 4th strings where that open string note will sound slightly choked. And here’s where playing style becomes important.  Those folk strums are not only problematic in linear tuning below the resonance; on the 4-string Ukulele (not 6-string guitar) there are problems from a strictly musical perspective as well, no matter what the pitch.  We touched on this briefly in the 5-string Concert example of the previous page.  With a 4-string linear tuning, these first position strums suffer from what are called “poor inversions”.  As a result of those poor basic chord structures, first position linear chords will often sound unbalanced in and of themselves irrespective of pitch or stringing.  “Up the neck” chord forms offer improved inversions, and so will almost always sound better.  However reentrant tuning, where the bass note 3rd string is also the root of the chord avoids those poor 1st position inversions.  4-string reentrant chords in “folk strums” and their ability to allow simple, sweet sounding, open string chord structure in those 1st position chords explains a lot of the Ukulele’s popularity.  For more on this, with a letter from Dr. Byron Yasui, see Part 7 of “Tuning Your Ukulele linked below. But to return specifically to the Baritone, it has one more advantage when it comes to these low tunings.  At traditional pitch, it uses wound 3rd & 4th strings; therefore the imbalance often found in single wound linear sets is not much of an issue.  And so the Baritone is definitely manageable, though it will be at it’s best when played with more than just basic technique.  In traditional tuning it won’t ever really sound like a guitar.  The tone is often very warm due to the heavier gauges necessary to put such a low tuning on such a short scale (compared to the guitar).  And this heavy stringing also means projection is down on its four notes compared to the same four notes on a guitar.  Still, a lot of folks are fine with a softer, warmer, quieter tone with less sustain.  So now let’s take one more look at that most difficult scenario.       *************************** Of the three common examples we presented, by far the biggest challenge you’ll face with below resonance tuning is to try to play an acoustic Soprano Ukulele in Linear C tuning with the pads of your fingers.  Your 4th string is four full steps below resonance, so you’d need to be at the 5th fret to bring that note up to the body resonance.  Soprano Ukuleles don’t have nearly as much fretboard as a Baritone, so not only will it be difficult to play a fully resonant 4th string, playing up the neck in general is difficult when you don’t have much neck to begin with.  The short scale not only brings sustain way down, but makes it difficult to fret clear notes up the fretboard at all.  Ohta did an excellent job tackling those issues in the video above.  Let’s now take a look at this effort: This is Oka Junichi, also playing “Stardust”, and obviously like many Japanese Ukulele players he is another devotee of Ohta-san.  As in the previous Ohta video, he plays an unamplified Soprano, and how he plays this piece may be the ultimate example of how to deal with the combination of below note resonance and unbalanced stringing.  He has a good set of nails, but it appears at first as if he’s playing this piece almost exclusively with the pads of his fingers. On close examination, however, it’s not quite that simple.  It appears that while he uses the pads (sides almost) of his fingers for most of the lightly struck chording, the nails do come into play with the high note plain string melody picking.  This gives the melody sections more clarity and projection while in the chording, the lightly struck 4th string almost never stands out and never truly displays a metallic character.   To our ear it is an astounding acoustic performance.  While this recording seems to have a fairly low sound level, this set-up and this way of playing will have a somewhat low volume, low projection sound.  Ohta’s arrangement calls for chords that go a ways up that short neck, which helps mute the longer sustain an unfretted wound 4th string would have, but Junichi’s technique is still impeccable.  He plays slowly and as such is able to carefully balance the tone and volume from string to string.  His precise touch and fretting means not only does his sound maintain a balance in tone, but he never takes the trip to “plinkyville”. String to string sound on this video is actually better balanced than on the acoustic Soprano Ohta-san video.  So does this mean Oka Junichi is actually a better player than Herb Ohta Sr.?  Well, he is certainly a top notch instrumentalist, but Ohta easily shows a higher level of skill and expression overall.  And of course, let’s not forget that Stardust is an Ohta arrangement to begin with.  But remember that because they both play Soprano Ukuleles, customarily they don’t actually play the “same” instrument.  One plays primarily amplified, the other acoustic.  It only makes sense that Junichi might therefore have an edge in this one acoustic element.  Each of these players concentrates on the subtleties of their chosen styles of performance.  Ohta needs something that prioritizes performance in front of an audience. The modern practice of “plugging in” obviously fits the bill.  And in doing that, he has no need to pay excessive attention to acoustic balance.  His video above is simply not his customary way of playing.  Junichi’s sound in comparison is very restrained, something that wouldn’t translate well at all to live performance.  However  in adopting that style, acoustic balance becomes one of the aspects he can really focus on.  Working on your sound is no different, whether you play amplified or acoustic; whether you’re B.B. King or Andres Segovia, you need to focus on your particular parameters.  Amplified sound is just as much of a challenge as acoustic; B.B. King in fact, once said it took him 40 years to get the tone he really wanted out of his famous guitar, “Lucille”. So for a truly “played with the pads” acoustic Soprano Linear C performance?  We couldn’t find one that really sounded good.  Maybe one exists, but our point here is not to say that such a thing is impossible, but to illustrate that it will be challenging.  We’ve shown a couple of excellent players who turn in great performances, even if they don’t quite play in the customary style of the typical Ukulele player. Note: While we listed three prominent examples of common below resonance tunings at the beginning, we have concentrated on the two extremes: the Baritone in traditional Linear G, and the Soprano in Linear C.  While we haven’t touched much on the other tuning, the Concert in Linear C, with a tuning a full step below resonance, the clarity of its acoustics falls in between that of the Baritone and the Soprano.  It is more like the Baritone than the Soprano in 4th note clarity, but it will generally lack the balance of a Baritone because it will not use a double wound string set-up. *************************** Now however, let’s listen to one more sound for a final reference.  This is Ms. Samantha Muir playing a Machete, the instrument that was the form for the first Ukuleles.  It is a bit smaller than the modern Soprano, but the big difference in tone comes from playing above the resonance with a balanced set of strings.  There may have been a bit of reverb added and the volume level is higher than in Junichi’s recording, but nonetheless the difference in clarity of tone and projection is like night and day. Now we don’t want to diminish Samantha’s performance in any way, but the average player will find it much easier to obtain the sort of sound she achieves with her set-up, than trying to sound like Junichi with his tuning and style of play.  All notes are clear, whether open or fretted, meaning all styles of play are viable.  In addition the tone is balanced from string to string and throughout the fretboard.  The unamplified projection this set-up yields is why it was also the lead instrument in traditional Portuguese string duos and trios, even when played with the pads of the fingers.  This sort of sound will be easily accessible to anyone who picks up the instrument, almost regardless of their level of play.  You won’t worry about balance, you won’t worry about clarity.  The only things you’ll have to worry about going forward are the timing, fluidity, polish and subtle flourishes that Samantha puts on display.         *************************** So hopefully this gives a perspective on this non-traditional “below resonance” sort of tuning on the Ukulele; gives some insight into the sort of sound it offers, the nature of the challenges it presents, and some ideas on how to confront those challenges.  But to end, let’s address the question as to whether or not you should take on those challenges, especially when tunings within the instruments natural range are generally so much easier to advance with. Do you want to play these tunings simply because they give a deeper sound than a C tuned Soprano, C tuned Concert or G tuned Baritone would have in reentrant tuning?  Nothing wrong with that, but hopefully we’ve shown that the consequences vary among those three examples.  Also bear in mind that even though they weren’t specifically designed for it, most Tenor Ukuleles will play in linear C without compromise.  And finally you may also want to look at Lili’u tuning, a reentrant option that offers deeper sound combined with better inversions for 1st position strumming.  More info on that tuning can be found here: Southcoast Ukulele Reentrant Sets: Our Review     Do you want to play these tunings because you are primarily an instrumentalist and you are under the impression that linear tunings offer an advantage for that sort of playing?  Then go back and listen to the 1st video of Peter Moon again.  In point of fact, more top Ukulele instrumentalists by far play reentrant tunings.  It’s not really even close.  There may be certain pieces where the 3 extra notes of a linear tuning will be useful, but there are other situations where linear tuning will again be more difficult.  With reentrant tuning, your low note (the 3rd string) is also the root of your chord, and if you move into improvisation when you start grabbing chords or notes, the reentrant arrangement will make things more intuitive. Do you simply prefer the sound of linear tunings and up the neck “guitar style” jazz chording for vocal accompaniment?  Then realize that the Tenor and Baritone, with their longer necks, are the instruments that make that easiest. Do you simply like linear instrumental playing, melody playing for example, but want it on a smaller scale length?  Then ask yourself what is really always the primary question.  What are you going to do with that sort of playing?  If you are going for lead playing in an ensemble and want to stick to the more popular standard tunings, then look to the techniques we have outlined here for that purpose: amplified playing, or at least playing with the use of some form of pick.  But if you’re playing solo, playing for your own enjoyment or in front of a small circle of friends, then in the case of below resonance set-ups, you might consider simply moving your tuning up. If you think this will involve relearning everything you now know in C or G tuning, then you have fallen into the common misconception that a lot of Ukulele players suffer from.  For the soloist, nothing changes in the way you play; it’s just that the pitch rises, the notes are clearer and you have better projection; you have those things, plus your chances of being able to string properly are better, meaning better balance as well.  You should be able to achieve something along the lines of that final performance from Samantha Muir (although at a somewhat lower pitch).  If you are at all in doubt about how this works, we think you’ll get a lot out of this group of letters:                   Tuning Your Ukulele: the Series Pay particular attention to Part 5 of the series.  Even though it is aimed primarily at the solo vocalist, it will “get you out of jail” as a solo instrumentalist as well.  And finally, if you own more than one Ukulele, consider using them in different ways.  If you play in typical Ukulele groups but don’t play lead, then there’s no need to play an instrument in the group that’s set up for solo play.  Your sound as part of a chorus is one thing; your sound as a soloist should be another.  Look back at the “conjunto” (group) playing of Veracruz.  With more than one instrument, you can have them tuned and set up differently to optimize your style of play in either situation. And in closing this perspective, we’d recommend that those just starting out consider avoiding linear tunings altogether.  Even with a Tenor Ukulele, where sound can be clearer and stringing sometimes can be more balanced, unless you only want to finger pick, then hopefully we’ve shown that chording with a linear set-up is best with more advanced “up the neck” technique.  With a reentrant tuning, you can sound good playing basic 1st position chords and finger pick as well.  Once you’ve developed some basic skill, then move onto tackling linear set-ups if you feel they will suit you better. *************************** You may also find this letter on the Baritone of interest; it focuses on possible higher tunings and their applications.  Linear Tuning on the Baritone Ukulele And we have remarked on several occasions about the relationship between balance in your sound and proper stringing.  So let’s conclude by repeating first that strings cannot be the remedy for problems with acoustics (unless you want to go to steel, in which case you’re no longer playing the typical Ukulele).  We decided quite some time ago to move away from strings for amplified playing.  And as far as balanced acoustic stringing, for years we didn’t even offer string sets heavy enough to be tuned in a Linear G on the Baritone.  Transitions from wound to plain strings are often the most difficult things to pull off with heavy stringing.  We were finally able to formulate material adequate to make this work to our satisfaction for traditional Baritone tuning, and have now been offering these since 2014. But with linear C tuning on the Concert and Soprano, the stringing should really be somewhat heavy.  After all, you’re tuning the instrument to relatively low pitch on short scales.  Heavier strings are how you do that and maintain tension.  And with heavier gauges, a double wound  set-up is best for balance.  That’s a combination that requires firm tension to perform well.  These little instruments are simply not constructed for this sort of a strain.  So don’t expect us to offer “proper” strings for those two set-ups.  Proper strings would go on an instrument that doesn’t currently exist, and we’re not about to bust up the instruments people have now.  And don’t expect us to offer the sort of unbalanced, tension compromised strings you can find sold elsewhere for these set-ups.  It’s always been our philosophy that the Ukulele deserves to be played to its potential and we never want to have to say “well, you can’t really expect a truly clear, balanced sound” out of one of our string sets.   It’s not an accident that balanced stringing is more difficult when the instrument is being played out of its natural range.  For more specifics on alternates for the Soprano & Concert, this letter may also be worth your attention: Linear Tuning on the Small Ukuleles            
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